I observed my first 5-foot long leatherback turtle laying her eggs about 30 years ago. I felt that I was witnessing an ancient and sacred ritual that somehow connected me and all humans to these amazing reptiles. They have have roamed the Earth’s oceans for the last 100 million years, and are now threatened with extinction.
For many years, as author of a guidebook to Costa Rica, I made sure to tell my readers about how important it is to follow certain rules when observing nesting sea turtles. The mother turtles emerge from the sea, where they are used to floating gracefully, and slowly and clumsily make their way across the sand until they find the place that feels right to dig their nests. The path made by their flippers looks like tractor treads on the beach. The whole process takes place after dark. Most mother turtles are in the sea again by dawn.
As I said in my book, The New Key to Costa Rica, “Visitors who want the opportunity to observe this fascinating natural phenomenon must participate in an organized tour with a registered local guide. The guides are familiar with the stages of the nesting process; they only let people approach once the mother turtle is so fully absorbed in laying her eggs that the observer’s presence will not disturb her…… Flashlights, cameras, and video equipment are not allowed on the beach during turtle tours. Dark clothing is also requested to reduce your visibility to the mother turtles on the beach.”
There is something very similar when one is listening to a Focuser. Experienced Focusers will sense the moment when their talking about a situation has taken them to the point where their felt sense tells them “here is where you can go in and find something new”.
At that moment, the Focuser must be protected in his or her process. As Jim Iberg describes in his article The Three Phases of Focusing, the Focuser is “parturient”–bearing or about to bear young; such
When mother turtles see lights at night on the beach, they often turn around and go back into the sea before digging their nests, thus the need for guides who understand their process.
Focusers too can get distracted by the lights coming from other minds. Their bodies are calling them to dig down into their own tenuous and unclear truth. If disturbed at that moment, their relation to the pre-verbal felt sense can be broken. The Focusing partner must be sensitive to that moment.
After the Focuser as started to “lay eggs”, the Listener reflects back as faithfully as possible the words that are being born. The faithful reflecting back allows more new words and ideas to be born.
Leatherback turtles lay about 110 eggs in each clutch!
I am grateful to my friend and Focusing teacher Robert Lee, PhD for sensitizing me to the role of the listener in the different domains of the Focusing process:
The Thinking Domain: The Focuser often has to talk for awhile to find the place where the felt sense invites him or her to “go in”. Effective Listening at this stage can involve reflecting back or summarizing just the main ideas expressed, so that the Focuser knows that the Listener understands. If the Listener really gets lost about what the Focuser is saying, it is OK to ask a clarifying question so that the Listener and Focuser feel that they are on the same wavelength. But an intellectual understanding of the Focuser’s issue is not really necessary in order to foster the Focusing process.
The Felt sensing domain: The Listener reflects back the exact words that are coming from the felt sense. Usually the Focuser pauses and speaks more slowly than in the Thinking Domain. The Listener can take in the shape and texture of the words being born from the felt sense.
The Self Empathy Domain: When the Focusing process is blocked, it usually involves some kind of lack of self-empathy. Reminding Focusers about the necessity of self empathy is very important while someone is learning how to Focus. Usually, experienced Focusers have their own ways of finding the right kind of empathy for themselves and don’t need to be reminded. They will notice when they come up against a place of self-judgement.
During the Focusing process is it not appropriate for the Listener to bring in his or her own ideas and suggestions. Those can be expressed if the Focuser clearly requests feedback after the session is complete. However, one never knows what effect one’s words will have on someone who has recently given birth to an idea that only minutes before was held silently in the body. It is best remain silent so that the Focuser can fully experience the new place where he or she has landed.
Spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about parts of the film that unfold toward the end.
Mr. Holmes is a beautifully crafted film that has an important message for our time, to wit: logical thinking and the ability to deduce clever solutions–these have their limits. More comprehensive solutions can emerge only if we open ourselves to the “mystery of life”, the more-than-logical. Focusing gives us the “how to” do this.
Sherlock Holmes trails Ann, the wife of a client, through London, and finally initiates a conversation with her. He comprehends the motives for her actions and, for a brief moment, she feels seen and understood. She shares her feeling of aloneness, and he admits that he has been alone all his life. She wonders if there would be a way for two souls to accompany each other in their solitude. They feel connected to one another.
Then, much too quickly, he advises her to go back to her husband, who loves her. His advice and his urge to jump to a solution seem perfectly rational and well-meaning, yet they trample upon the intricate meaning that their interaction has awakened in both of them. And, as he admits years later, they come from his own fear.
She does not need advice. She needs to be seen for who she is, to acknowledge the longings of her soul with another human being. These longings have been ignored by her husband, who has not validated her sorrow, nor given her space to mourn her losses, and who has not, despite his love for her, been open to her insights about life and death.
Mr. Holmes feels all this, yet looks for a solution rather than receiving her feelings, and his own buried longings, just as they are. His suggested “solution” leads her to discard the brief reprieve from suicide that came in the moments they shared. And it leads him into guilt, anguish, a sense of failure, and the abandonment of his life-long profession.
In Focusing, we pay attention to the felt sense of a situation in all its complexity, knowing that as we express one part of its intricacy, more meaning can come. We take time to listen to all the voices. Only then does the implied next step emerge, on its own, to carry the whole situation forward.
Ann has suffered loss. Loss implies mourning. When mourning can’t happen, there is no carrying forward of the sequence of loss-mourning-renewal. Things remain stuck, and as Parker Palmer recently said, “Violence happens because there seems to be no other way to express our suffering.”
Now I am going to apply this to something that might appear to be unrelated, moving from Holmes-era England to the current situation with racism in the United States.
Our country is still dealing with the impact of slavery. Back in 1903, W.E.B. Dubois chronicled the enormous vacuum in thought, care and policy that surrounded the freeing of the slaves, and which led to the growth of Jim Crow. It was only through the Civil Rights movement, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the situation started to be addressed. Laws like the Voting Rights Act, were seen as solutions, but are starting to unravel today.
So now we have an complex mesh of circumstances evolving from slavery, economic exploitation, racism, lack of opportunity. Many black people have made the best of these circumstances and have led productive, expressive and successful lives. Many have not. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to increase awareness of institutionalized racism, calling attention to the feelings of suffering, loss and mourning that are unexpressed and unheard. Many white southerners also have a sense of loss. The problem affects our society as a whole.
There will be no solution until all the voices can be heard. We will continue at an impasse. Having a black president moves our society forward, but it also means that these deeper contradictions can rise to the surface. We are now at a point where dialog has to happen.
There are no easy solutions. The deep feelings that are evoked in this encounter affect all of us. Instead of expecting a solution at this point, we are called upon to bring this national problem out into the sunlight, listen to each other, to acknowledge the pain, and mourn together.
If we did this, it would imply a change in our whole exploitative system. If we don’t do it, I’m afraid that a candidate like Bernie Sanders, who has always stood for change, will not be able to win. Because we would be jumping to a solution without previously acknowledging the pain, without allowing all the voices to be heard, so that the collective wisdom can emerge.
Today I learned of the passing of Mary Hendricks Gendlin, PhD, wife and creative partner of the developer of Focusing, Eugene Gendlin.
From 2004-2006, when I was exploring teaching Focusing in El Salvador, Mary was one of my main encouragers. She raised money for the project, and sent me off with a number of Focusing books in Spanish. In those years, she really was the heart and soul of The Focusing Institute, helping many people launch new projects.
It was a great loss to the community as Parkinson’s disease took its gradual but devastating toll, and she became less and less able to interact with us and to give all she was capable of giving.
She, Gene and Kye Nelson developed the Thinking at the Edge, the amazing practice that I now teach. Gene couldn’t see how to develop a process that would allow felt sensing and thinking to happen together, but Mary knew there had to be a way, and made sure that they stuck with it until the steps were in place. I am eternally grateful to the three of them for persevering in creating this beautiful system.
When my mother died suddenly, I felt her spirit, huge, vital and beyond the bounds of personality. I wish that for Mary now. Mary, may your spirit finally be free.
I’m thinking of one of my students, J, a young man 25 years old. He volunteers with a youth group in his community and at a camp for disabled children. I am inspired by the way he works with my classes. We first started corresponding when he signed up for a free lesson that involved reading about a Focusing experience and noticing the elements of Focusing. The homework was to practice the pause and notice one’s feelings. After a couple of weeks, he wrote back that he couldn’t do the homework because it was very difficult to pause. I replied that he did the assignment perfectly, because pausing IS difficult. I could see that he had really taken the exercise seriously. We corresponded a bit more about befriending our inner world, and how that helps one to pause.
Now he is taking one of our interactive video classes. He brought a friend, R, another young man who works with youth groups, who has had no Focusing experience, but who naturally went into Focusing during the first class. The class is very interactive. That is something I value. But it takes some reaching out to find those who are willing to work with their own lives, like these young men. I want people like J and R to feel empowered and to let their lights shine.
For most of my life, I didn’t think that I could think! I thought I had to fit myself into the systems that other people had written in books, because they were smarter than I am. It’s true, I am not intellectually smart. I can’t hold onto ideas in a rigorous way. But thanks to my dear Gene Gendlin, I know how to go into my own knowing, which is at another level than intellectual smarts. In fact a lot of intellectually smart friends of mine become imprisoned in their intellect, in a maelstrom of air-tight arguments that leave no space for who they are, for their own wantings, for the longings of the soul. So the smartness becomes a source of suffering and self rejection. I want to extend my hand and say, “We are so much more than that!”
Right now I am dealing with at least three forms of software that I hoped would make my work more effective. But that’s not what is happening. So I am going to let go of at least one of the programs, and spend some time today going back to my goals. That brings me to something Gendlin has helped me to grasp. My goals evolve with my interactions. Since I started learning the software, I have had some real life experiences that show me what I love, what fulfills me, what I want more of. So on this snowy day, I will stop and let my ideas catch up to my lived experience.
My friend Susana Alvarez from Argentina recently posted a saying that roughly translates to: “Communists until they get rich, lesbians until they get married, atheists until the plane starts to fall…”. I wrote back, “But Focusers forever.”
That’s because Focusing is a practice, not a theory. We can tune into our own felt sense as long as we have bodies, to get our own body perspective on what’s happening.
Right now I am translating parts Marshall Rosenberg’s Speak Peace in a World of Conflict. I’m translating it to Spanish to be sure that I am faithfully transmitting his theory to my students in El Salvador and México. They find his theories extremely enlightening.
But because I have also studied Gendlin, I want to make sure that in interacting with my students, the theory does not become more important or valid than their own lived experience. And I recognize this as a value in the Salvadoran left-wing ethos. BUT, as Rob Parker points out in our Process Model class, it is also important to read a new theory with a humble mind, rather than thinking that one can discuss it from one’s own philosophical stance. Once we have studied and understand the new theory, we can discuss it from within the new theory itself.
Apparently Gene Gendlin used to entertain himself when he was young by absorbing various theoretical frameworks and seeing that he could out-argue proponents of those theories from within the frameworks they espoused. He could do it because he saw them all as “conceptual frameworks”, whether Marxism or evangelical Christianity, or what-have-you. This awareness is so revolutionary and could mean so much for peace if people could be taught from childhood to value their living experience rather than becoming part of a theoretical machine. Focusing and what it means and how to use it–all this grows as I grow. That’s why I can be a Focuser forever, within whichever theoretical framework I find helpful at the time. I am struggling to understand A Process Model, in order to understand Gendlin’s theory of what Focusing means and how it is possible, but as Gendlin says, “it is just a theory.”
Just got this letter from a participant in our online class, Giving Language to Stress. It feels very fulfilling to have this feedback, because it speaks to my vision, many years ago, of why I wanted to switch from being an acupuncturist to a Focusing teacher. I deeply respect acupuncture and what it can do. Acupunture is my first choice when I have a physical problem that I am not able to handle myself. And yet there are so many ways that we can improve our health by becoming aware of the patterns held silently in our bodies. I am grateful to Sue for wanting to share her story, and publish it here with her permission.
“In your TAE tele seminar, Giving Language to Stress, I learnt a huge amount about how I carry stress. I have been a lifelong stress suppressor, so wasn’t very aware of my bodily manifestations of stress. Most helpful to me was the notion that we all carry stress in ways that are unique to each of us, and, of course, that what we stress about, is also unique to each person.
“I learned that, for me, stress was activated by being caught by surprise, or shocked, in some interpersonal interaction. Being caught off-guard would prevent my ‘internal editor’ from checking or inhibiting my real, authentic response (in case it might cause me to experience disapproval, anger, or worse from the other person/s). This was intricately intertwined with a severe lack of assertiveness. I was doing Conflict Management in my Counselling course, and observed how hard it was for me to be assertive. This puzzled me, as I am very articulate and can argue my case well in many situations. But not, as the TAE & Stress course showed me, in situations where I was caught unawares, or was uncertain of potential responses. This was all happening at a very unconscious level. My ‘internal editor’ was protecting or guarding me, so non-Focusing approaches didn’t make much headway.
“This was also one of the other benefits of TAE. The structured nature of the steps gave me what was necessary then: a way of looking at my stress that was less identified with the ‘blocking’ part, which felt ‘safer’.
“Using the step of taking a situation that triggered stress, and stepping back to look at the patterns in this and another similar situation, really brought my ‘internal editor’ into clear view. I have since learnt that this response-suppression pattern consumes an enormous amount of energy, and is stress-inducing in and of itself! The cost of not being authentic is huge.
“Before your class, I started going to a great chiropractor, who tested my adrenal function. This involved placing a heart rate monitor on my chest, and then simply having me stand up from lying down. This sophisticated software, used by cardiologists, reads the body’s response to this effort. Around 1000 was normal – my graph was basically flat-lining! The chiropractor asked me whether I had been under huge stress, and back then, my answer was no, because I just didn’t recognise it!!
“So, a couple of years later, post your TAE course, and some good supplements (Adrenotone by Metagenics), as well as a couple of Focusing partnering session a week, my levels are up round 600+. In addition, a recent blood test showed my usually very high cholesterol levels – 7-8+ (family pattern) had dropped 2 points , as had my blood sugar levels.
“I attribute this to Focusing, and I have been very grateful to your TAE and Stress course for being the precursor to these great bodily improvements, and really opening up this whole area of stress, and my personal manifestation of that, in a way that has allowed me to release a lot of those blockages to living and feeling, authentically.” –Sue Burrell, Sydney, Australia
Example of felt sensing from my life: I have wanted to integrate a shopping cart on my website. Experienced people had told me to go with a certain well-known ecommerce site. I signed up for the trial period, and did everything necessary to get it going. But when the time came to pull the switch and launch the new addition to my site, I felt hesitant. I lived with the discomfort for a few weeks, trying to ignore it. Finally I decided to pay attention to my felt sense. As I paid attention, my body sense became clearer. It was “the new addition won’t be true to the feeling I want on my site”. So I decided to ask my experienced advisers about it. They said, “Just go ahead, don’t worry about it”. But it still didn’t feel right.
I decided to learn more about ecommerce providers, an very complex field. I did some research and found that there are some providers that are integrated with the kind of site I had designed. Then I found out about a new kind of software called learning management systems. I became very excited, because learning management systems are directed toward education, not just toward selling shoes or other commodities. The learning management system was a way to organize my classes so that they would be easily accessible to all my students in different countries. They even have a Spanish translation!
My feeling that something wasn’t right led me to find a whole new system that was much more compatible with what I wanted to do, and provided opportunities I hadn’t even considered.
Last night I saw the documentary Citizenfour. I think everyone should see it. Despite Variety’s catchy comparison to Psycho, it is a quiet, thoughtful, inspiring film about real people.
It is mostly about the 8 days in which former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden met for the first time with journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in a hotel room in Hong Kong. He had contacted them via encrypted emails in January 2013 because he was looking for the best way to tell the American public about the data on all of us that he had as a NSA contractor.
We also get to know William Binney, a mathematician/cryptologist who devised a lot of the data-intercepting methods that are used today by the government. Binney had expected that his inventions would be used in a way that was consistent with the US constitution, but saw that after 9/11, data intercepting systems were used to track everyone, indiscriminately. He resigned on October 31, 2001 after 30 years with the NSA. Binney was interrogated by the FBI after contributing to a 2005 New York Times exposé on warrentless eavesdropping. In July 2007, his home office was raided by the FBI, guns drawn. They confiscated his computer, discs and personal and business records. The film also records various congressional hearings and court cases in which the issue of government surveillance was brought up and flatly denied by NSA officials or deflected by them.
So Snowden knew that he had to set up his revelations very carefully. Instead of the rogue Wikilieaks style, Snowden chose to turn his information over to journalists whom he trusted would not sensationalize the issue and “make it about him”, but would open the subject for public debate.
When they met for the first time in Snowden’s hotel room in June 2013, Poitras asked if she could film their interaction. We see the first uneasy meeting, and we observe Snowden as he deals quietly and poignantly with having left his girlfriend, his job, contact with his family, and stepped out into an action space where he did not know what would happen next.
First Greenwald’s initial article was published in the Guardian, then Poitras’s article was published in the Washington Post –about how Verizon was turning over all client records to the NSA. The next day, Snowden followed his plan of revealing his identity, so that people would know that these revelations were coming from a concerned citizen and not from some unpredictable rogue entity.
After he has revealed his identity (but not his whereabouts) there is a moment in the film where Snowden expresses his felt sense of the situation. He says something like “I feel strange…..it’s hard to put into words….It’s scary, but I feel GOOD…..There is something liberating about being finally able to act, then act again.”
This is why I teach Focusing and Thinking at the Edge. Not all of us have Edward Snowden’s courage and commitment to act on our felt senses. Not all of us let our felt sense be known to ourselves, let alone anyone else. But in this moment, we can see the simplicity and the clear direction that happens when we give expression to implicit knowing. There is something inside that feels right.
Snowden paid attention to the sense of incongruity between his work and everything he had learned as an American citizen. He also used his cognitive ability to set up his revelations in the most protected and responsible way he could, even though it led him to a place that felt like stepping off a cliff.
As a species, we need to develop and trust this innately human felt sensing capacity. We all have it, if we learn how to pay attention to it. Felt sensing can never be done by computers. It is not based on “the numbers” of probability. The felt sense gives us access to the whole of our situation, in all its implications, so that we can act as human beings, and act again.
My data can be tracked easily on the internet. But this same internet allows me to connect with you. And to have intimate, life-changing interactions with people in India and El Salvador. Something tells me that we have not fully grasped the implications of this ability to connect with each other. It feels more powerful than governments. As long as we pay attention to what makes us human, we can use this to go way beyond the probabilities.